Hard to Love

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After church I decline an invitation to join my Bible study friends for brunch in favour of a few hours of solitary ice skating at Brighton Lake. I have my skates and warm wool over-clothes all ready in the boot of the Mini.

The ice is well carved into already by the skaters who arrived before me. The lake is about twice the size of an Olympic swimming pool, so there is plenty of room for me among the smattering of remaining skaters. I lace up my skates inside of the only structure erected near the lake within a mile: a sort of shack equipped with toilets and minimal electricity – no heating. I rub my hands together a few times to get the blood circulating in my fingers, exposed due to my fingerless gloves, and then pull up the black lace boot covers.

Fly-away hairs flutter across my temple and hairline as I skate across the lake toward the far end, where few have wandered. The ice has less friction here and I almost fall on the slick virgin ice. I warm up with a few laps around my end of the lake, and then long strides from bank to bank. When I try some small jumps, I end up on my bottom with sore palms. I am determined to land a series of three jumps in a row, regardless, but, without any training, I only have what I've seen from figure skating on television about landing technique. Maybe I should find out if the mall has any classes available.

It feels like I have been on the ice for about an hour (less most likely) and the grooves I carved in the ice have carved and snagged my cotton tights. I head back to the shack for a cup of hot water to warm my hands, which have survived the falls better than my tights. I reach into the pocket of my coat to retrieve my blade guards, but one is snagged on the corner of the pocket. I take off my coat for an easier access point but this just means I have loads of fabric to fumble around in until I find the pocket lining underneath. The plastic nuisance is liberated, however, and, with an hesitant seat on the icy ground, I replace the guards onto my blades and carry my jacket in my arms; too warm from exercise and agitation to wear it.

I toss my coat onto a chair and then grab a cardboard cup from the snack table to fill with boiling hot water. My hands alternate passing over the steam rising from the cup as I focus on beating back the numbness.

"Are you brewing a potion?" says the wearer of well-worn brown ice skates.

My chest takes a rapid rise toward my throat as my heart pounds and my brain recognises the deep somber tones of Brendan Lankershim. I maintain my gaze on the cup, but rest both hands on it's warm sides. The now undisturbed steam rises into my already hot face.

"No," I say. "Warming my fingers."

"It was a joke," he says.

I nod. "Right."

"I guess it wasn't very funny," he says, in what sounds more like an aside than a response directed at me. "You were skating?"

"Yes. You?"

"Not yet. I am waiting for my friends. We're having an ice hockey game."

I look up at him and he looks up from my hands and into my eyes. I smile. Damn him.

"You play ice hockey?" I say. That came out sounding far more eager than I had intended.

"Yes. I'm not good enough to play on a team, but I have fun."

I nod and relax my smile to a neutral expression. It seems we are both at a loss for words until he says:

"Do you like ice hockey?"

I smile again. Not because of him, but because of the topic. Why would I be smiling because of him? He has done nothing but crack a weak attempt at a joke and he just happens to play one of my favourite sports.

"I love it," I say.

"Who is your favourite team?" he says.

"The Willowvalley Wombats. I don't think they'll make it to the Cup this year, but they've won it a few times before."

"Yeah. They're a good team."

"Yeah. Um... should you be getting out there? I don't want to hold you up."

"Oh, you're right. I'll see you later, maybe."

"Yeah. Probably," I say.

We stare at each other for another moment, and then he ducks his head and leaves.

My hands are hot now, with the rest of my body. I sit on the chair my coat is strewn over and dry my skates before switching them for my boots so that I can go home. Brendan and his friends have been allowed a space on the ice to play. It's three-on-three, no safety gear: just sticks and skates. I had only intended to watch them play for a minute but, before I knew it, it was evening and the guys are asking me back to Brendan's apartment to hang out.

Despite Declan's concerns about me being alone with a group of guys I hardly know, I know how to take care of myself and can be a good judge of character. Besides, I can no longer say that I don't know Brendan well; and he doesn't seem to have trouble talking to me anymore.

"Is she the one who went to the movie with you guys?" one of the boys, named Lindon, says to the group as Brendan brings soda pop for everyone. Lindon has dark hair and a deep voice. He seems to be older than the others. He picks up a can and pushes in the tab.

"Yeah," Bret says. "You should have seen her costume. It was really cool, and she made it herself."

I smile and blush a little at the compliment. "I can show you if you like," I say. "I always take photos of my work." I point at the apartment door. "The camera is in my car."

The guys encourage me to get the camera and Brendan volunteers himself to escort me to the car. He is at the door and holding it open for me before I can object. I begin to feel very warm under my coat and my heart is beating hard. I need to get outside. "You don't have to," I say to him already out of breath.

"I want to," he says. I don't have the breath to argue, so I make a quick descent of the stairs and thrust open the door. The rush of cold floods my lungs and I take deep breaths, my hand on my chest.

"Are you okay?" Brendan says behind me.

I open my eyes and move out of the threshold.

"Yeah. I just needed some fresh air all of a sudden."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, it happens sometimes."

I head over to where my car is parked on the street.

"Is there anything I can do?" he says.

I stop and turn to face him. "Don't panic." I turn back to my car and continue to take long slow breaths as I unlock the door and get my camera from the center console.

I lock the car and feel droplets of rain explode on my nose and cheeks. I look up and see the rain clouds rolling across the sky. The pink and orange sky is streaked with long puffs of purple. I close my eyes and turn my face up to the sky, as the sprinkling of rain makes fast progress to a drizzle.

"We should go before it rains harder," Brendan says with a hand on my shoulder.

I agree and return to the apartment with Brendan, in fear of having ruined my glorious Edwardian up do of braids and curls.

The guys are having a good time looking through the photos on my camera. I started this obsession of photographing my outfits during university, when I challenged myself to use my creativity to style a unique wardrobe for myself which reflected the cultures I admired – as I learned about them through my Anthropology studies – and pieces that I found to be especially beautiful, but very expensive. Many of the outer wear pieces are thrift store finds, but I have sewn a great deal. The collection is now a largely Gothic-European collection with Asian influences; and the odd costume piece, like the Captain America dress.

"So, what do you guys do in your free time other than play hockey and read comic books?" I say.

"Study," Brendan says.

"He studies," Darren says. "We watch TV, go to games on campus, and play video games; or just chill."

"We had to convince him to leave his essay to come out with us today," Will says.

"I take my education seriously," Brendan says.

"I admire that," I say.

"Oh yeah, Brendan, if you want to go back to that essay it's no problem. We'll keep Veda company," Darren says.

Brendan looks down and says, "I'll finish it later," and then goes into the kitchen.

I pick up a soda and press the tab into the can. "Do you have straws?"

"Yeah, hang on," Lindon says. He follows Brendan into the kitchen and returns with a paper-wrapped straw from a fast food restaurant.

"Thanks." I use my teeth to tear off the closed end of the wrapper. "I miss going to school games: rugby, football, ice hockey. School unity."

"You don't strike me as a school unity type of girl," Will says. He is blonde, a freshman, and lives on campus.

"That's the stereotype talking. I'm not all doom and gloom. I take pleasure in camaraderie as much as the peppiest cheer leader. It's just that some of my pleasures can be found in unexpected places."

"Like a well-portrayed death scene," Bret says with a grin.

I glare at his teasing, but my grin betrays my true amusement, and everyone is laughing. "It's rare to see an actor portray a death properly: jaw slack, eyes open, and muscles relaxed – and what's-his-face did it really well in Super Soldier." I shake my head. "I also take pleasure in the intricate design on wood pieces, like a clock or a bureau; the sound of frogs and crickets outside of my window on a Summer night; a moonless night; an intelligent quip; a well-tailored suit; et cetera, et cetera, and so on, and so forth."

"If you are..." Darren hesitates and looks around at his friends. I smile.

"Goth?" I say. He nods. "It's okay. It's the best generalised term to describe me at the moment."

"If you are a Goth, then how does that work with being a Christian?" he says.

I take a sip from my soda. "Christianity centers it's belief system on the death and resurrection of Christ. The Catholics have even fixated on the crucifixion so much that it's become the universal icon of their faith. Jesus told his followers that if any man wants to save his life, he must first lose it; he also commanded us to 'take up our cross and follow him'. Scripture repeatedly tells us to rejoice when we are opposed, rejected, abused, or even killed because of our faith; our reward is in Heaven. We are reminded that we live in a world ruled by darkness and the trappings of sin; our flesh and spirit are constantly in battle as are the forces of the realms of Heaven and Hell. The world may have distorted Christianity to make it seem like it is meant to be sunshine and rainbows all day everyday, but at the heart: it's about fighting a constant spiritual war knowing that the general has already punched a gaping hole into the enemies defense. I can appreciate the dark things of this world because of how bright the goodness shines through it." I stop to take a sip and gauge my audience. "Sorry, I think I might have strayed a little bit. Did that answer your question?"

I finally remember to ask Brendan about going hunting, but it is too late to plan a trip with Christmas coming up. I suggest a shooting range instead. I have never shot a gun before, so some practice will do me good. If I do well, then I can suggest hunting for early Spring. It'll be time for venison; although, how I'll be able to make my first kill.

"I don't suppose we can shoot some rounds in the OTC facilities?" I say.

He shakes his head. "No. Only OTC members can use the fire arm facilities."

"Of course. Well, I don't know where there are gun rangers here. Do you?"

"I know where we can go." He looks me up and down, and then says, "Umm. Dress... down."

"Don't worry. I know just what to wear."

I show up at the gun range dressed for combat. Aside from my black and silver octopus clutch, I am wearing a fitted black long-sleeved blouse with subtly flared hems, a belted faux-vintage silver jacket with velveteen lining and trim – also with a flared hem, and a long black double-layer A-line skirt which reveals my black leather ankle boots.

Brendan is already there and waiting for me in charcoal grey boots, fitted dark blue denim jeans, and a charcoal grey double-breasted pea coat. Instead of a hood, he wore a navy and grey striped ear-flap hat. He waves at me when he sees me and he holds the door open so we can go inside together. There isn't anyone else inside except for the shop attendant who is sitting behind large glass displays encasing hand guns and ammunition. More display cases filled with larger specialty guns line the walls.

"Is it just us?" I say.

"Yeah, I - is that okay?" Brendan says. "You hadn't mentioned..."

"It's fine. Don't worry about it."

"You look amazing by the way," he says.

"Thanks. Nice hat." I pull the hat off of his head as he says "Thank you", and pull it over mine.

"What's first? Choosing guns?" I say.

He runs his hand through his hair and breathes a laugh through his nose. The quiet laugh is accompanied by a bright smile. He looks away and leads me to the display case of hand guns.

"I'm not sure what you had in mind, but these are good to start with," he says.

"My end goal is to go hunting, but I'll work my way up to that."

I pick out .22 Taurus Revolver, which feels lovely in my hands, and Brendan picks the .45 Regent Pistol. The ammunition, targets: zombies (because I prefer my first victims to already be dead – and on paper), safety gear, and gun rental fees add up to seventy-five dollars.

"Want to split it?" I say. My clutch is open, I'm ready to pay.

"I'll take care of it," he says.

"Oh! Well, thank you kindly," I say. "I very much appreciate it."

We share a booth because first time shooters aren't allowed to fire on their own. He sets up the targets while I wait and am indiscreet about pretending to be an action hero with my empty revolver.

"I'll show you how to shoot before I show you how to load your gun," Brendan says with a hint of a smile on his lips.

"Alright." I stand in front of him with my gun at my side.

"Your legs and feet should be in line with your hips for a firm stance," he says.

The front of my skirt has a raised hem. He can see that I am already in this stance.

"Good. Bend your knees just enough to be comfortable so your knees don't lock."

I adjust and, instead of being at approximate eye level, I am staring at his nose and mouth. I had not noticed before how full and inviting his lips are. They are an enticing salmon colour and round toward the edges almost in a pucker.

"Your right hand is your gun hand, the left is your support," he says.

My focus shifts at the sound of his voice to scenes of cowboys and action heroes shooting off their guns with one hand.

"I thought this was a single-handed gun," I say. I lift the gun in my right hand, pointing it out to the side. I stare down my arm to the sight, and then tilt it to the left like I have seen in films.

Brendan takes hold of my wrist in a firm, but non-threatening, grip and lowers it back to beside my leg. "Rule Number One -" His voice is a firm as his grip. My heart beats in double-time and I really want to kiss him. He stares into my eyes. "- Guns are not toys, even when they are not loaded."

It feels like he is staring into my conscience and it precipitates an apology.

"Sorry." My voice is as firm and steady as his grip.

He lets go of my wrist and then comes to stand at my right side.

"Your right hand should grip high on the back of the gun." He demonstrates this with his pistol and I raise my revolver to adjust my hand to match his. "The space between your thumb and index finger rests below the slide. Index finger lines up with slide." Our hands mirror each other.

"You're left handed," I say.


"I hadn't noticed until now."

He makes a sort of grunt which sounds like Hmm, and then says, "Your left hand covers your right so the grip is fully covered on both sides. Four fingers under the trigger, right thumb over the left."

My hands take a moment to sort themselves out but, checking with Brendan's grip, I get it right. With the two of us standing like this, back to back and guns pointed, I feel powerful. I haven't even shot anything yet.

"Now I will teach you to aim. Let's face the target," he says. We turn from facing the wall of the booth toward the paper zombie target. I reset to the shooting stance as I was taught: feet and hips aligned, knees bent, left hand over right.

"For this part, you will not need your gun at first. You have to determine which is your dominant eye," he says. I hand him my gun and he puts it on the shallow shelf which separates the booth from the shooting target area. "The circle targets would have been easier for this, but, Umm, make a circle with your index finger and thumb," he says. "Then find an object in the distance and center it in the circle at arms length."

I choose a circle target a few targets to the right of our booth.

"With both eyes open, focus on the object and bring the circle toward your face. It will naturally move toward your dominant eye," he says.

I focus on the black bulls eye at the center of the circle target which fits in the center of my finger circle and bring it toward my face. It ends up at my right eye.

"Cool!" I say. I then try it with my left hand to see if maybe it was just a easier for my right hand to go to my right eye but the result is the same, with my left hand ending up at my right eye. "Very cool," I say and I can not stop my smile. He nods.

"You can hold your gun again now," he says. I pick up my gun and take up my stance once again. "Aim the gun at the target. At the end of the slide you can see a little bump, that is the –" "The sight," I say with a glance at him. He nods.

"Yeah. Your gun has both front and rear sight notches. Aim at your target and align the top of the front sight so that it lines up equidistant between the two rear sight notches."

I set my sights and check for the equal distance on either side of the front sight.

"First aim at the target and loosely line up the sights with it. Then change your focus to align the front and rear sights. The target will appear blurry now, but that's okay.

I aim the sight at the right eye of the target zombie and stare down the slide. My gaze stops at the front sight, I can make out the shape of the eye which is my target.

"Now you do not want to 'pull' the trigger, but 'press' or 'squeeze' it to the rear so you don't disrupt your sights."

I bring my index finger to the trigger and squeeze the trigger. It's not as easy as firing a water pistol.

"Do you feel the resistance?" he says.

I nod. "Yeah."

"It will get stronger when there is a bullet in the chamber. Keep squeezing the trigger to the rear until it fires. It will probably not happen on the first few tries, which is why you need a double handed grip: for more stability and power in your grip."

I look to him when he is silent for a long moment. I see his eyes roam over me from head to toe, a hint of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.

"Is that it?" I say.


"Can I put some bullets in the barrel?" I say. I don't even try to stop my anxious smile. I'm ready to shoot something.

Learning this is the easiest part. There is a button to pop out the cylinder for loading and unloading, and an ejector for ejecting spent rounds. That is the whole of it. I load the six bullets into the cylinder and clap it shut.

"Let's do this," I say.

Now that the gun is loaded, I am starting to feel really anxious; but in a bad way. I could actually kill someone right now. I am too nervous to even play around with the gun as I had done before.

"You might want to take your jacket off. For better flexibility," he says as he pulls the goggles over his head.

I set my gun on the shelf, with much caution, and remove my jacket. He takes it from me and holds it while I put on my own eye and ear gear, and then take up my gun again.

"Oh, you don't have to hold that. You can fold it up and put it on the floor with my purse," I say.

He shrugs. "I don't mind."

Brendan was right. It takes me about four tries to get the trigger to squeeze all of the way to the back. The first complete shot came nowhere near the target. I was so caught up in trying to give a sufficient amount of pressure to the trigger that I lost sight of my sight. He is watching me, patiently, my jacket folded neatly over his arm and his pistol sitting on the shelf. I don't think he has even loaded it yet.

"So, why the Army?" I say as I reset my stance and take proper aim this time.


I don't get a shot out, so I re-adjust my grip and try again with a little more power. I raise my voice to accommodate for the ear muffs.

"Why did you decide to join the Army?" SHKAT! I hit the edge of the target by the zombie's neck. I am beaming. Chest swelled, shoulders back, a grin spread across my face. "I hit the target!"

"That's a really good shot," he says, and then, "Most of the men in my family are in the military."

"Oh. It's in your blood." I take aim again.

"Adjust your grip," he says. "High on the back." I adjust. "I have always held the highest regard for the men and women in the military. It symbolizes striving for excellence in all areas: physical, mental, and moral. They are willing to lay down their lives to protect their country. I want to be one of those, one of the elite, and to offer my skills to better help our nation."

He has the dedication, no doubt, and the leadership capabilities. From what I've seen of his physique, he seems to be fit, and he is quite intelligent.

"What is it exactly that you want to do in the Army?"

"I want to be a Special Forces Officer," he says.

I get another round off and I give a heaving breath of relief.

"What is a Special Forces Officer?"

"The Special Forces Officer is the team leader of an operational detachment alpha, a highly trained twelve-man team that is deployed in rapid-response situations. The officer organizes the mission, outfits the team, and debriefs them on the mission objective."

I lower my fire arm and turn my head a few degrees to stare at him in my periphery, curious, brows cinched.

"Did you just recite that from memory?" I say.

He nods. "Yes, I did."

"Wow. How long did that take?"

He shakes his head and shrugs. "I read it once in the Field Manual."

I turn fully to look at him straight on. "You're amazing," I say.

He blushes and turns away to set down my jacket, and then begins to load his pistol.

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